While on a private boat tour of Lago Maggiore on Day 3 of our Italy – Wine, Dine & Unwind Tour, we will have the opportunity to explore this very ancient and beautiful sanctuary, Santa Caterina del Sasso, perched precipitously on the side of a cliff. It is located a few miles north of the town in which my parents grew up and it wasn’t until 2009 that I was able to actually visit this magical place. The sanctuary sits on a cliff above the eastern shore of the lake, and it is best accessible by boat. We accessed it by road, but we had to climb down (and then eventually back up) from the parking lot. The climb was a bit arduous, but the result of being able to explore this extraordinary place was beyond compare. My mom used to tell me that the lake’s depth here at the sanctuary is the deepest in the entire lake and that there are rumors of sunken treasure which no one has ever been able to recover due to the great depth. Who knows if this legend is true, but it just adds to the mysticism here. The sanctuary is home to a small group of Domincian friars, after having been part of the Carmelite order of monks for many years. The church has recently been restored, and the frescoes have been cleaned and brought to light after many years of being hidden beneath rubble and dirt.
The story of the this sanctuary and how it came to be are enchanting. The story goes that a certain rich merchant by the name of Albert Besozzi, while crossing the lake during a storm in 1170, capsized his boat near the rocky shores of the stone cliff. He clung to the rocks and prayed to Santa Caterina to save him. He promised that if his life were spared, he would build a santuary to the saint and live the rest of his days as a hermit. His life was saved, and he kept his promise by devoting his life to her. It is believed that several miracles happened here, all due to the intervention of Santa Caterina. The evidence of one of these miracles can still be evidenced today, and I was fortunate to see it. During a rock slide in the 17th century, a huge boulder came off the cliffs and was destined to destroy the altar and Alberto Besozzi’s tomb. Miraculously, the rock was lodged above the altar and never came down to destroy it. The site is still evident today, with that part of the chapel being kept unrestored so that the miraculous recovery can be seen.
Strolling along the arches and gazing out at Monte Rosa in the distance, you can see how this very scenic piece of coastline would lend itself to a life of devotion and prayer by the faithful. Experiencing the silence, only interrupted by the sounds of the lapping waves on the rocks, was a moment that will stay with me forever as I remember the shores of the lake that is such a part of my core.